The Power of Thought Experiments

How a simple thought experiment can lead us to make discoveries about human nature — and about our true nature.

Part I of II

Thought experiments are a way to craft free experiences in our mind, designed to answer a question or validate a hypothesis we have about human nature without imposing any demands on us for physical resources, time, or risk-taking.

The greatest scientist of modern time, Einstein, arrived at many of his breakthroughs via thought experiments. At the age of 16, he asked himself, “What if you could ride alongside a beam of light? What would that be like?” It seemed to him that you would perceive a light wave to be stationary since you were traveling at the same speed. He kept deepening his understanding of this concept for the next 10 years until it led to his famous theory of relativity. What’s remarkable is that the experimental proof of some of the propositions of his theory required the building of a particle accelerator that was several miles long and cost billions of dollars. But the actual breakthrough came from a thought experiment in Einstein’s mind. It didn’t even require a pen and napkin.

Just like Einstein used thought experiments to make discoveries about nature, we can use thought experiments to make discoveries about human nature–and about our true nature. Start by formulating a hypothesis, a conjecture about your true nature or human nature that you wish to prove. Design a mental experience, a situation in which you place yourself where this conjecture will be tested. Note the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that flow freely from the core of your being as you visualize yourself in this situation. Then ask yourself, what understanding does this visualization give me about what values and behaviors are most authentic to me?

Discovering Your True Self

Many people strongly identify with their personality. If you see yourself as an introvert, for instance, you may believe it is natural for you to be reserved in group meetings and get-togethers, not wanting to attract attention to yourself. But what if your true self was something beyond your personality?

Imagine a moment where you are walking in a bustling city with your 10-year-old son or nephew. He breaks free from your grasp and turns to run across the street. There’s traffic all around.

Will you in that moment say to yourself, “I can’t raise my voice! I am an introvert. I don’t feel comfortable shouting in public and attracting all kinds of attention.” Or will you shout at the top of your voice? “Jamie! Stop!” Would you feel more true in that moment by acting like the introvert you see yourself to be, or by acting just the opposite?

A simple thought experiment ends up revealing a powerful truth: We feel more true to ourselves when our behavior is motivated by what we deeply care about, even if this behavior is the opposite of our personality. When it comes to being authentic, purpose triumphs over personality.

In years past, when I met people who were highly successful executives in a certain industry, or highly successful academics, I would do a thought experiment, “What if this is the career path I pursued, and this is where I ended up. Would I feel deeply fulfilled?” Most of the time, the answer I received from within was, “No.” While I admired them and looked up at them, and while others might seek to emulate them, this thought experiment showed me that their path was not going to be my path; my true self was seeking something else, even if I did not know what it was at that time.

The people I was most drawn to visualizing as my end-state were typically either creative people–movie directors, authors–or spiritual truth-seekers. A thought experiment of visualizing who I would need to be in the future for me to feel fulfilled helped me not get entrapped in career paths that weren’t true to me.

Developing Empathy

In studying Mother Teresa’s life, I initially found myself deeply inspired by her commitment to serving the poorest among the poor. But I also learned that she had consorted at times with people of disrepute, such as a banker convicted of a crime and a dictator. I wondered why she was not more discriminating in whom she engaged with for her cause. Then I constructed a thought experiment.

I visualized that I was traveling in a remote country with a loved one. Our car meets with an accident, and my loved one is seriously injured. Her life is in danger as she bleeds by the side of the road. There is no help in sight. One car passes by on the road, and despite our entreaties, it does not stop. Nor do the next 10. The twelfth car I try to wave down stops to help us. I am overwhelmed with relief. Then I suddenly notice that the driver of the vehicle is a corrupt dictator I have long been critical of. What would I do in that moment?

Would I ask him to leave, because I have judged him to be a bad person? Or would I jump at his offer to help, thank him for doing so, and focus on getting my loved one to the nearest hospital? I realized that this was probably what Mother Teresa had experienced. Her loved ones were the street people that most of the world had abandoned like those 11 cars that I had imagined passing my dying loved one. Whoever offered help, she received it with gratitude and without judgment. Her business was not to investigate their lives or support their agenda; it was to attract love, care, and support for the people on the sidewalks that most of us had chosen to pass by. This thought experiment taught me the importance of cultivating empathy. We cannot judge someone’s character based on a behavior we see without first trying to see the world through their eyes. We need to understand their motivations and context before critiquing their behavior, and thought experiments can help us do so.

This article was originally published in Psychology Today.